Why Saying “America First” Is Not Compatible With Christianity

The American experiment is predicated on the notion of the peaceful transfer of power. We just underwent one such transition. On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump swore on a Bible to stand on behalf of others and gave an address. An inaugural address can tell us a lot about what a new president values.

A new president can tell us a lot about what we value (even though he lost the popular vote in a landslide).

Trump’s speech was simply an extension of his campaign rhetoric promising us that we would win and that, from now on, it’s going to be “America First”. We’re going to put up a wall, we’re going to turn away refugees and immigrants, we’re going to tax companies that build things out of the country. In short, we’re not going to be pushed around any more and gosh-dangit, it’s about time we thought of ourselves. As Trump said:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.

I wrote the other day about how Christianity is always political. Our faith informs and fuels our politics. Every election season, Christians confound one another trying to convince each other that certain political positions that automatically mean you’re not a Christian. And, of course, if you only took your faith as seriously as I do, we would vote the same.

Part of the difficulty, of course is that, for many, Christianity also means being a patriot. We have adopted this sentimental notion of the “good ol’ boy” who loves his Momma, loves his truck, loves his guns, loves God and his country. To be a Christian in America, for many, means being an American, and being proud to be an American. There is a good section of our country that believes that America is a “Christian” nation and that to be Christian inseparably means supporting America.
But what do when “American values” contradict Christianity? For example, Trump’s message is unbiblical at best, anti-Christian at worst. Do you think that’s an overstatement? Despite that the fact that many people claim to have voted for Trump out of sincere Christian convictions, he proved on Inauguration Day that he not only misunderstands Christianity, he stands in direct opposition to many core Christian convictions. Do you think that’s an overstatement? Let’s think about it.

During the campaign, Trump promised his supporters that, under his leadership, America would “win” so much that: “You will be tired of winning. We will win win win.” Every candidate promised to help get their country ahead. But “winning” in Trump’s world seems to be a zero-sum game. In other words, for us to “win”, someone else must lose. Trump has proven that he is not the forgiving type. He has admitted to holding grudges and promotes getting even with others.

The Christian understanding leads us to pursue the “flourishing” (shalom) of all. In other words, we win when others win. This is part of the reason why God tells His exiled people to seek the betterment of their captive cities (Jeremiah 29). Christians win when others flourish. But this is not what Trump means by “We will win win win.” He has already shown that, if Mexico is unwilling to pay for our wall, then we will punish them. Winning for Trump always means beating someone else. This is simply not in line with a biblical approach to dealing with others.

Christianity is, at its core, “other-centric”. It requires that we consider others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2). Paul tells the Romans that if they want to compete, they should out-honor one another (Romans 12:10). Jesus tells us that the path to true greatness is through humbling ourselves and putting others first (Matthew 20:16) and just in case we’re unclear, Jesus clarifies that greatness lies in serving others (Matthew 20: 26-27).

Yet, Trump promised to put “America first” and this is exactly what many of his supporters wanted him to say. Even many of his Christian supporters. But what do when “American values” contradict Christianity? Let’s unpack this a bit for a minute, speaking in the context of a presidential inauguration, to Americans, the contextual implication of putting “America first” equals the same thing as saying: “Let’s put ourselves first (even at the cost of excluding others).” “Let’s put ourselves first” is simply the plural of “ME FIRST”.

But Christianity requires us to put others first. Christianity is simply not compatible with the sort of nationalistic patriotism. Christians in America seem to be at a perpetual crossroads. Will we influence the American culture more than we let it influence us? Alan Wolfe argues in The Transformation of American Religion that, despite the best efforts of many Christians, American culture tends to win:

“in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer”

Christians must separate themselves from a culture which promotes self-service. Christians must regain lives of sacrifice and the practice of service. God is love and far too often, no one would know it by watching us. What will we show a watching world? Will we buy in to a nationalistic patriotism that’s simply flag-wrapped selfishness or will we follow Jesus into servanthood seeking the good of others?

Christianity Is Always Political

We are fortunate to live in a country in which we get to re-choose our major leaders on a rotating cycle. The up-side of this is that we get to regularly examine how we come to our political positions. We regularly have the opportunity to discover anew how our worldviews create our political opinions. The down-side is that it is easy to simply take party loyalty for granted and simply assume that (if you are a Christian as am I) our party affiliation is, “of course the most biblical choice” without continually re-examining whether our votes really align with biblical values.

In other words since voting for major offices is such a regular part of our life in this country, it’s tempting to simply fall in to patterns of voting without really thinking about why we’ve aligned with a certain candidate or party. It seems even rarer still for adults to switch party loyalties once they have been ingrained.

But Christians are called to continually re-examine their beliefs, “taking every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5, etc.), striving for a maturity that is not easily swayed (Ephesians 4:9-16). We are told to strive after maturity and expected to think deeply.

The 2016 election cycle has been contentious to say the least and it has caused lots of division among Christians. Many (including myself) have felt as though the Republican candidate is completely and utterly out of step with what I value as a Christian. Others have argued that the Republican party is always the more biblical choice regardless of the candidate. Still others take it a step further and say that Donald Trump is actually God’s candidate.

As I’ve dialogued with family and friends about the different positions Christians might take over this election cycle, one view repeated itself enough that I’ve been thinking a lot about it. In short, many people told me that they have actively tried to separate their faith from their political opinions and votes. Several people told me that Christianity can be interpreted and applied by people of both major political party and can be inconclusive at best and divisive at worst, so they have decided to vote aside from their faith. 

As I’ve tried to understand this position, I’m driven more and more to the conviction that Christianity is always political. Our faith cannot be separated from our politics. In fact, I would argue that our politics are an outworking of our faith. Christianity addresses how we should care for the poor (Psalm 34:6; Proverbs 22:9, 31:20; Daniel 4:27; Matthew 19:21; Galatians 2:10, etc.). Christianity addresses our attitude to violence (Exodus 14:14; 1 Samuel 17:47; Psalms 11:5, 17:4, 20:7; Matthew 5:9, etc.). We could go on, but my point is that Christianity directly addresses issues which fuel our voting habits.

We tend to forget that Rome viewed Christianity as a political threat. Part of being a citizen meant declaring that Caesar was Lord. But as people came to faith in Jesus, they were no longer able to declare such things because Jesus was now their Lord. This might be difficult for us to understand in our current political day and age but it is fairly easy to see why political leaders would not only view this as insubordination but as a threat to their own positions of power.

We tend to forget that it is the Christian faith which has led many to acts of civil disobedience and to become directly involved in politics. Whether abolition, women’s suffrage, the fight for civil rights, Christianity has not only always been political, it has often been quite unpopular.

Christianity in America has often been co-opted to support the pursuit of wealth and comfort. It has been used to justify oppression rather than combat it. Christianity has been turned upside down and used to endorse power structures which directly oppose biblical convictions.

We live in a time whose importance will only really become apparent with time. Christians in America have the opportunity to shed the skin of consumerism and leave behind (and fight) systems of oppression. Christians in America have the duty to follow Christianity rather than America. Christians have the chance (and perhaps obligation) to reclaim the practice of civil disobedience. Part of our prophetic voice in culture has always been to speak truth to power, not to court favor.

The heart of Christianity is for social justice, care for the poor, nonviolence and the flourishing of our cities. These convictions have unmistakable political ramifications. Christianity is always political and it’s up to us to work this out in public.

I look forward to your thoughts.

It’s OK If We Don’t Worship The Same God And It’s Not Intolerant To Say So (Right?)

coexistBy now you may have heard the tale of (former) Wheaton Professor Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins was recently let go from the college, not for wearing a hijab but for declaring that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God”.

This situation has stirred up the proverbial poop-storm of controversy with media outlets pretending that they understand (and can define) “Christianity” (and religion in general for that matter) better than its practitioners who themselves can’t seem to agree on definitions and boundaries. Miraslov Volf has tried to play with the meaning of the word “same” (as in “Muslims and Christians worship the same god”) while Scot McKnight and others have contradicted him.

For many, the controversy centers on the ideas of tolerance and intolerance. Some seem to believe that Hawkins’ firing was an act of intolerance by Wheaton College. Much of this, of course has to do with how we perceive the ideas of “tolerance” and “intolerance”. Tolerance used to mean something like we disagree and that’s OK, we can and probably should continue in dialogue and cooperation while still owning our distinct beliefs. But somewhere along the path to politically correct town, it has come to mean something more like: we disagree but you can’t say I’m wrong and you probably need to make room in your set of beliefs for mine. I paraphrase, of course.

The key issue at stake is not whether or not Hawkins wants to wear a hijab but her assertion that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God”. As an employee of a Christian institution of higher learning, Hawkins has committed herself to live and teach within certain parameters. The leadership of Wheaton has decided that her current beliefs are outside of those parameters.

Screen-Shot-2015-12-16-at-8.49.56-AMWe need to remember that every system of religious beliefs has boundaries. This is what makes them unique and distinct. This is the root of the idea of “Orthodoxy”, which every religious system of belief has. There are some beliefs within the bounds of orthodoxy for every religion and there are some beliefs that simply disqualify from walking that religious path.

If I reject the Koran en toto or the legitimacy of Muhammad, I am not a Muslim. If I reject the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or the legitimacy of Joseph Smith, I am not a Mormon. If I reject the legitimacy of the Pope as a vehicle for God’s revelation, I am not a Catholic. If I believe that Jesus is God and the long-awaited Messiah, I am not a Jew.

If you do not worship the God who has revealed Himself as One God in Three Persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), each distinct yet fully God, then we do not worship the same God and you are not a Christian. In other words, if you do not believe in the Trinity or if you do not believe that Jesus is fully man AND fully God (along with the Father and Spirit), we do not worship the same God.

Jews are not Christians. Mormons are not Christians. Muslims are not Christians. And it’s not intolerant to say so. In fact, it does each religion a disservice to pretend otherwise.

Pretending that all religions are somehow the same or lead to the same place devalues all of them. While there are certainly areas of agreement, there are also most certainly differences in belief and practice. Tolerance dictates that we acknowledge those differences while seeking ways to work together for the common good. It is not intolerant to acknowledge and own our differences and it doesn’t help to try and change the commonly accepted definition of words like “same” as Volf has done. That’s akin to Bill Clinton trying to blur the definition of “is” to escape ownership of transgressions. It’s not only unhelpful, it is destructive.

It’s OK to acknowledge that we worship different gods and it’s OK for a professing “Christian” college to fire someone who holds different beliefs. In fact, this seems to me a better alternative than pretending that the distinctives of Christianity are no longer distinct.

I’m sure I’ll hear from you and I look forward to it.

 

the Weekly Town Crier

London's Town Crier copyI know what you’re thinking: Gosh-dangit, this guy is at it again?! Does he really think we care this much about what he found so interesting this week?! Yes, yes I do think you’re interested in what I found interesting this week. That’s why you’re hear, isn’t it? Admit it, you’re interested. And that’s interesting, isn’t it?

Welcome to the Weekly Town Crier: where I collect links to various things I found interesting this week. You read what interests you and skip what doesn’t and we’ll all be happily interesting together. Separate. On our computers.

Buy my art here or here or contact me directly to purchase originals.

Visit our family blog: “The Thomas Ten.”

Browse Large Hearted Boy‘s list of “100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads.”

It’s the most wonderful time of year: year-end list time!

  • * = Added to the list this week.
  • Listen as All Songs Considered considers the year in music.
  • Browse American Songwriter’s picks for the “Top 50 Albums of 2015.”
  • Browse Aquarium Drunkard‘s unranked picks for music of the year. *
  • Browse AV Club‘s picks for “The 15 best albums of 2015.”
  • Browse AV Club‘s picks for their favorite books of the year. *
  • Browse AV Club‘s picks for: “graphic novels, one-shots, and archives of 2015.” *
  • Browse as Christianity Today hands out their annual books awards. *
  • Browse Consequence of Sound‘s picks for the “Top 50 Songs of 2015.”
  • Browse Consequence of Sound‘s picks for the “Top 50 Albums of the Year.”
  • Browse The Daily Beast‘s picks for “The Most Overlooked Movies of the Year.” *
  • Browse The Daily Beast‘s picks for music of the year. *
  • Browse David Dye’s (World Café) dspicks for albums of the year. *
  • Browse Design Week’s picks for their favorite album covers.
  • Browse Drowned In Sound‘s favorite albums of 2015. *
  • Browse FACT‘s picks for the best record labels of the year.
  • Browse FACT‘s picks for albums of the year.
  • Browse as First Things considers their year in books. *
  • Browse Flavorwire‘s picks for “The 50 Best Independent Press Books of 2015.”
  • Browse Flavorwire‘s picks for the best nonfiction books of the year. *
  • Browse as Bill Gates picks his favorite books read in 2015. *
  • Browse The Gospel Coalition editors’ picks for books of the year. *
  • Browse iBooks‘s favorite books of 2015. *
  • Browse iTunes‘ favorite music of 2015. *
  • Browse iTunes‘s favorite movies of 2015. *
  • Browse as the KEXP DJ’s make their picks.
  • Browse The New York Times‘s picks for their favorite albums of 2015. *
  • Browse NME‘s albums of the year.
  • Browse as No Depression considers “Great albums at the bottom of the list.” *
  • Browse Noisey‘s picks for songs of the year.
  • Browse Noisey‘s picks for albums of the year.
  • Browse NPR Music’s “50 Favorite Albums Of 2015.”
  • Browse NPR’s picks for the best books of 2015
  • Browse OkayPlayer‘s favorite albums of the year. *
  • Browse as Pandora reveals the top 100 “thumbed up” songs of 2015.
  • Browse Paste‘s picks for the “The 50 Best Songs of 2015.”
  • Browse Paste‘s picks for albums of the year.
  • Browse Paste‘s picks for “The 10 Best Box Sets of 2015.”
  • Browse Paste‘s picks for “The Best Comic Books of 2015.”
  • Browse Paste‘s picks for “The 20 Best New Bands of 2015.” *
  • Browse Paste‘s picks for the best canned beers of 2015. *
  • Browse Paste‘s picks for the best fiction books of the year. *
  • Browse (part one/part two) Phoenix New Times‘s picks for best AZ songs this year. *
  • Browse Piccadilly Records‘s choices.
  • Browse Pitchfork‘s top 50 albums of the year. *
  • Browse as Pop Matters‘s makes their picks for “The 80 Best Albums of 2015.”
  • Browse The Quietus‘s picks.
  • Browse “Relevants” top 10 albums of 2015.
  • Browse Rolling Stone‘s picks.
  • Browse Rough Trade‘s picks for their favorite albums of the year.
  • Browse Spin‘s picks for “The 50 Best Albums of 2015.”
  • Browse Spin‘s picks for the “101 Best Songs of 2015.”
  • Browse Stereogum‘s picks for their favorite new bands of 2015.
  • Browse Stereogum‘s picks for albums of the year.
  • Browse Stereogum‘s picks for their “80 Favorite Songs Of 2015.”
  • Browse Time‘s picks for the top 10 movies of the year. *
  • Browse Time‘s top 100 photographs of the year. *
  • Browse Tiny Mix Tape‘s 50 favorite albums of 2015. *
  • Browse Uncut‘s favorite albums of 2015.
  • Browse Under the Radar‘s 2015 picks. *
  • Browse Vogue‘s picks for albums of the year.
  • Browse the favorite music from Zia Records‘ staff. *

See Banksy remind the world that Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant.

Read Vanity Fair‘s piece: “Frank Sinatra’s Drummer Tells the Story of His Final Concert.”

Browse as Marie Claire recommends: “6 Graphic Novels By Women You Need To Read.”

Browse as the Rumpus recommends books about Bob Dylan.

Browse Baeble‘s list of “The 10 Most Ridiculous Moments In Music In 2015.”

Browse Paste‘s picks for “18 Documentaries about Writers.”

Browse Paste‘s “Complete Guide to Music Snobbery in Noah Baumbach Movies.”

Watch the Oh Hello’s perform a Tiny Desk Concert.

Download a vintage holiday mixtape from Aquarium Drunkard.

Read Consequence of Sound‘s report: “Pandora executive says Steve Jobs “eviscerated the music industry”.

  • Read the New York Times‘ report that “Apple Gains Exclusive Streaming Deal With Taylor Swift.”

Read as The Atlantic considers “Why L.L. Bean’s Boots Keep Selling Out.”

Read CNN‘s report that scientists claim that the Mona Lisa is actually hiding another painting.

Browse “Relevant”‘s picks for “The Best Christmas Movies on Netflix.”

Watch/read CNN‘s report: “5 things you didn’t know about satanists”.

Read as The Atlantic considers “Why Americans All Believe They Are ‘Middle Class'”.

Watch as The Atlantic ponders near death experiences.

Read Slate‘s piece about Walmart entering the pay-account business: “After Refusing to Take Apple Pay, Walmart Launches Walmart Pay.”

Read/listen as NPR’s Here and Now considers Kentucky’s “First Woman Master Distiller In Modern Times”.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is Giving You Over 400,000 High-Res Digital Images For Free“.

Read about the North Carolina town who “rejects solar because it’ll suck up sunlight and kill the plants”.

Browse NME‘s list of “100 Lost Albums You Need To Know.”

Read as The Daily Beast wonders “Is This Stone the Clue to Why Jesus Was Killed?”

Read Uncut‘s report: “Iggy Pop, Buzzcocks and The Damned to celebrate punk’s 40th anniversary at Isle of Wight Festival.”

Read as The Atlantic considers why “There’s No Such Thing as Free Shipping”.

Read the Guardian‘s piece: “Rachel Dolezal: ‘I wasn’t identifying as black to upset people. I was being me’.

See what “$1,000 Per Month In Rent Will Get You Around The U.S.”

Read/see Salon‘s piece “Scientists claim this is how Jesus Christ really looked”.

Read as Andrew Jones considers the little-known Christian roots of Yoga.

Read Brain Picking‘s piece: “Bob Dylan on Sacrifice, the Unconscious Mind, and How to Cultivate the Perfect Environment for Creative Work.”

  • Read as the Washington Post considers why Bob Dylan lyrics pop up so much in medical literature.

Read Flavorwire‘s profile of Jukely, the subscription service for concerts.

Read The Daily Beast‘s report that MLB will not reinstate Pete Rose.

Hear Neko Case on NPR’s quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.

Read National Geographic‘s profile of Joe Pug.

Read a report that Mark Driscoll has filed incorporation papers for a new church in the Phoenix, AZ area.

Read as Christianity Today considers the infiltration of multi-level marketing into American Evangelical churches.

Browse Turntable Kitchen‘s holiday gift guide for music lovers.

Read Harper Lee‘s 1961 piece My Christmas in New York.

Read Stereogum‘s report: “Amazon Developing Scripted Series About The Grateful Dead.

Browse Vice‘s “Definitive Guide to Hipster Music Genres.”

Read Pitchfork‘s piece: “Lowell Brams Discusses Sufjan Stevens‘ Album About His Life.”

Read GQ‘s profile of Hillsong, NYC, church to, among others, Kevin Durant and Justin Bieber.

See a man’s beer can collection, worth over $1 million.

Read about the Wheaton professor suspended after saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Read as Christianity Today considers the recent surge of hymns in the spotlight.

Read as Merle Haggard discusses his recent health scare.

Try Charles Mingus‘ potent egg nog recipe at your own risk.

Read Flavorwire‘s piece: “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Seals Its Irrelevance With Another Year of Sad Boomer Inductees.”

What Can the Church Learn From the Grateful Dead?

grateful-deadRegardless of what you think of them as a band, you can’t deny the Grateful Dead‘s indelible mark on popular culture, especially in light of the band’s 50th anniversary/farewell “Fare Thee Well” concerts.

Never has a band succeeded so well at making themselves more than a band. They filled stadiums for years, encouraging fans to tape, trade and even give away their shows. They revolutionized business dealings for musicians and have their own Ben and Jerry’s flavor. I even got married in a Cherry Jerry Garcia tie I bought at Mervyn’s. Don’t judge. And that stupid little dancing bear seems ubiquitous.

As the band says it is done, many are considering what it all meant, if anything. Some, like Huffpo‘s Mike Edison argue: “Never Has a Band Had Such Contempt for Their Fans“, while others (like me) have argued that the Grateful Dead are “America’s Band”. But, for many, the band’s legacy is a muddy conversation.

Once, in my sheltered, sometimes unintentionally legalistic Evangelical youth, I went on a summer field trip with the church group to the Phoenix TBN studios. A cameraman in a Grateful Dead shirt gave us the tour and I remember being appalled that a “Christian” organization would allow an employee to wear a shirt by such a pagan band, especially one with skeletons on it. Of course, in hindsight, I should have been appalled that my church group was visiting TBN, but you live and learn, right?

As years and experience have colored perspective, the Dead have become one of my favorite bands. I’ve thought a lot about what the American Church might learn from these “Entrepreneurial Hippies”. This might seem a bit odd; I mean, after all, shouldn’t the Church stay away from sinners like the Dead and their black market traveling circus? But really, is asking what the Church can learn from the Grateful Dead any more odd than asking what Corporate Leadership lessons we can learn from Jesus? It’s just a different perspective. And, I think, a valuable one to consider.

So, what might the Church (particularly the “American” Church, of which I am a part). I think the legacy of the Grateful Dead carries with it at least three important things for the American Church to consider.

  • They Weren’t Interested In Simply Repeating the Accepted Norms

The band seems to have understood fairly on that the key to their success did not lie in the traditional, record sales, radio play model. The band consolidated many of their business dealings early on and relied on their live performances as the foundation of their growth. Further bucking the accepted way of doing things, the band not only encouraged fans to tape and trade the live performances but to give them away. Understanding that they did not have traditional commercial appeal, the band instead created their own business model.

I bring this up because, at least for the Evangelical wing of the Church family in America, we’ve come to accept “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as “this is the way it should be done”.

Perhaps it’s not necessary, but let me preface this next section by saying that I love God’s people. I value gathering with them. I have given most of my professional life to serving the Church. Any concerns I might have are spoken as a family member to family.

Over the past months, I have had the privilege to visit lots of different Evangelical churches on Sunday mornings. Though it has been a terrific experience to be able to worship with so many different groups of believers, one thread has tugged at my thoughts during my travels: most Evangelical worship gatherings are pretty much the same thing.

We’ve simply accepted the 60-90 minute, Sunday morning, two songs, announcements, sermon, two songs, go get your kids model as the way things should be done. At least that’s what it seems like. Though the music may be different (loud band in bright lights or organ lady in a flowery dress), the decor may vary, the style of speech and depth of the sermon may vary, but we’re all pretty much doing different versions of the same thing.

I worry that we forget that we are part of an Ancient family, and for most of our history, our public worship did not look like it does now. We are quick to view history through a short lens when asking how (or even why) we should do things.

Nearly everyone I talk to says that the current model of the American Church has done a less-than-stellar job at doing our one main task: to make, mature and multiply disciples. And yet, we are all doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results than the church down the road doing the exact same thing.

In order for the Church to flourish in consumeristic America, we are going to have to let go of the idolatry of our model and learn to take chances without branding risk takers as heretics or simply write them off as “emergent”. I’m not questioning Orthodox theology, here, but I am concerned with just how similar and bland and interchangeable we all seem to think Sunday (and church life) should be.

  • They Built Their Reputation On Community

The Grateful Dead understood that the vitality of their business model hinged on creating community rather than simply consumers. Though I guess you could argue that, as a business, the Dead were interested in creating a community of consumers, I think the point is that they understood that they needed repeat customers who would be loyal to a fault and evangelize to a fault.

They created a place of belonging for many people who had not ever experienced a truly welcoming community. Yes, there were of course bad apples in the Deadhead community, but by and large, the stories are of welcoming, accepting and dedicated people, bound together by a common community that happened to center around a band.

I worry that the current American Church model, by default lends itself more towards creating consumers than it does community. We arrange ourselves as a passive audience on Sundays and many churches quite openly tie their view of success or failure to how many people are in the audience each week.

Very little of the current church model in America lends itself to an active faith lived out in community. And hence, very little of our current model emphasizes the necessity of Believers taking responsibility for their own faith. The church must take seriously Paul’s admonition that leaders have been given to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-13) rather than perpetuating the myth of the “sacred profession” held by pastors. Deadheads understood that if they’re community was going to be sustainable, they had to make it so. The band could not do all the work of creating a self-sustaining, traveling community, nor is it what they were called to do. They were simply facilitators.

We have tried to appropriate so much of the way we do things from the business world that, of course we believe that success is based purely on numbers. But the Dead showed us that a loyal community is the real goal. Consumers will come and go. But community is something different and it is sorely lacking in many of our outposts.

  • They Were Not Afraid To Fail

One of the greatest criticisms of the Grateful Dead is that they, by all accounts, were a hit or miss live affair. Whey they were on, everyone understood why they were there. But when they swung and missed, everyone was thankful for the accompanying community because it wasn’t necessarily the success of that night’s show holding them together.

And yet, how often I hear pastors prepping themselves to believe that every week is the most important message their church will hear. If they happen to have an off Sunday, their egos are deflated and the success of the entire mission is questioned. Somehow, we who find our breath in God’s grace have lost the ability to fail. We have turned the Sunday morning into a performance with such pressure that many churches have countdown clocks right on the wall, the lighting is on point and God forbid the slide person miss a cue. When something does “go wrong” on a Sunday, we fret, frown and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should strive for excellence in our public worship. But it is not a performance. It’s not a big deal if I forget my place in a sermon, if the guitar player misses a chord change or the slide person misses a cue. Those things matter when it’s a performance and when you’re creating consumers. They matter and we should try to avoid mistakes, but they’re not a big deal when you’re after real community. If you’re unwilling to fail, you won’t take chances and when you won’t take chances, everyone ends up doing the same thing.

What if you already had all of the love, acceptance and grace you could ever hope for and more? Would you be willing to take chances that might lead to failure? Would you be able to model grace in mistakes rather than striving to portray a perfect performer? What if we really believed that our worth is not based on our performance?

It’s beautiful to know that there are so many valuable lessons for us to learn in such unlikely places. For the health of the church, let’s humbly consider what’s valid, what’s not (even if I’ve written it) and continue to strive for a more genuine faith.

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (03): Emotionalism/Performance, And, “I Don’t Feel Close To God”

Emotional-TradingOver the past week or so I’ve been wondering whether our current system of “American Church” actually makes our fundamental task (Make, Mature and Multiply Disciples) more difficult than it ought to be. We’ve looked at questions like: “What is the Call To Ministry” and we’ve examined why many seemingly qualified men often feel discouraged from ministry as well as the idea that our current system actually promotes passivity rather than active faith.

We’ve also taken a moment to point out that voicing questions/concerns does not mean that I’m bitter in any way. I’m really not. But I am in a place of wrestling with a lot of really big questions which I feel deserve open consideration and public dialogue.

Today I want to consider another issue that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. As you might guess, I wonder if there aren’t many ways in which our current system have actually made following Jesus more difficult than it was meant to be. I’ll be open and say that, though it’s been many years since I’ve read Neil Postman’s essential Amusing Ourselves To Death (seriously, if you haven’t read it, please do so), his notion that “the medium is the message” has stuck with me as I’ve considered American Evangelicalism both as a pastor and church planter.

I have come to wonder whether the very systems we have adopted are actually distracting from discipleship. I believe that one of the main places where we see this disconnect is given birth in our Sunday Gatherings but matures in personal quiet times. Let me explain.

Though there are certainly exceptions, I’ve come to wonder whether American Evangelical “worship gatherings” can be separated from emotional appeals. The very notion of our Sunday gatherings has borrowed so much from the entertainment industry that I’m not sure they can be separated. We borrow our seating structure from entertainment venues, with the “crowd/congregation” seated as spectators and the “leaders” on a stage with cool lighting and a professional speaker. I’ve been to worship gatherings that were indistinguishable from rock concerts and that should be at least a bit disconcerting.

Many people describe their favorite concerts as “religious experiences”. There is something special about losing yourself in the moment to the power of music/crowd/shared experience. But I wonder how much of that we have set out to re-create in our Sunday gatherings. The most famous “worship leaders” are often the ones who can most consistently get an emotional reaction. The most famous preachers are also those who are typically the best public speakers. We have come to believe that the most “effective” worship gatherings are those during which we were most emotionally moved.

This, of course, carries over into the personal Christian Life. We have come to believe that we are most close to God when we “feel” most close to God. Our “most powerful” quiet times are those that are the most emotional. In other words, though it begins with our production/performance based Sunday gatherings, it certainly extends to our personal spiritual disciplines. We have have come to equate spiritual growth with emotional experiences.

I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me as a leader and said that they just “don’t feel moved” in their quiet times, so they must not be “close to God”. I get it. I mean, there are times in marriage when you “feel” closer to your spouse, but (hopefully), your commitment does not waiver when the emotion is not there. Yet, somehow, we have come to believe that our faith is in danger when our emotions aren’t moved.

If the medium is the message, as Postman asserts, then many of the ways we have adopted in following God owe more to American entertainment culture than with genuine faith. If emotionalism can weave and wane in a marriage, surely we will not always have an emotional response in worship or Bible reading/prayer. And I’m not so sure this should be as much of a concern to us as it seems to be.

In fact, the more we equate emotional experience with spiritual experiences (which are, undoubtedly often emotional), we are setting ourselves up for a never-ending cycle of theatricalism in our churches. Once a specific church hits a “dry spell,” many might head to the church down the road who has the “fresh experience”. When we don’t always feel “moved” in our quiet times, we will be tempted to substitute time with God’s Word for time with things that tug on the heart strings.

Many of us have wholeheartedly devoted ourselves to the chase of emotional experience while we hope that spiritual growth will follow. But what if spiritual growth is not always accompanied by emotional experiences? I have grown the most in some churches many would consider “dry” simply because I was regularly encouraged to place myself in an encounter with God’s truth. The speakers weren’t always dynamic nor the music moving but the truth was impressed in my heart.

I worry that by adopting so much of our systems from the entertainment industry, we have communicated that “church” is just another form of entertainment. Hopefully you’ll grow during the performance, but at least you’ll leave wanting more.

It has become so confusing that I have to wonder what it might look like to remove the performance aspect from our Sunday gatherings. Is it even possible any longer? And, while there is certainly an emotional equation to our faith, God’s move will always produce emotional responses in His people, but I’m just not sure that emotional experiences will produce the movement of God. Have we muddied the waters and made it more difficult than it was ever meant to be?